Making Archives, Archiving the Internet, and Archival Projects

To get it off my mind while I write the rest of this, I’ll start with an agitating, scholarly question: What is (still/even) left out of an archive that preserves everything on the Internet? Though a discussion of the readings for this week, and the sites we’ve looked at, I hope we can have a fruitful discussion about the modern “archiving impulse,” what gets archived, and how technology might mediate what artifacts or archival material is preserved in the archive (and what is considered ephemeral). As Thelwall and Vaughan’s article notes, the archive of material in the Internet Archive is large and comprehensive, but still biased and “selective” in ways that are tied, historically if not politically, to the Internet’s contextual development and circumstances.

 

In Deborah Thomas’s Caribbean Studies, Archive Building, and the Problem of Violence, the article begins with a quote from David Scott: “an archive is not merely a collection; rather it is a generative system….” Archives produce in several ways, and engage in what Thomas groups into two types of projects: vindicating projects and reparative projects. Throughout the essay, the archive is interrogated for being both part of a vindicating project that asserts the validity or relevance of its subject (often, black Caribbean regions, nations, groups, or beyond) and a reparative project that seeks to link historical materialism and events to contemporary social formations for social justice and change. Thomas aligns vindicating projects with the recent (post)colonial period and the development of Caribbean self-governing nation-states while reparative projects seek continuity with the African diaspora and its traditions while refusing to apologize for compensate for the non-European origin of ideologies, idioms, or cultural products, embracing alternative ontologies and epistemologies.

 

Thomas concludes her piece with a discussion about the possibility of archiving violence, asking what would happen if we “applied the same impetus (evidence generation, claim making, vindication, and, perhaps ultimately, repair) to the study of violence that we have applied to the study of slavery, governance, family formation, and expressive cultural practices?” (36) By producing an archive of violence, a voluntary archive of information that would link seemingly unrelated acts to one another and larger (social scientific) patterns of oppression through and across time and space, refuting the trope that “black people have a culture of violence” (35) with evidence that links violent acts to social, historical, and economic formations. I am interested in the “archive of additional forms”—an involuntary archive—such a voluntary archive would produce. However, I think that issues of representation, access, visuality, and reification problematize an archive of violence, in particular. Also, when dealing with the rules and limitations (or at the very least, categories) of the archive as it currently exists, what sort of violence would count and how? Domestic violence, mugging, epistemic violence, and institutional violence are arbitrary categories that might relate or intersect, but not necessarily, at different times and spaces. Is it even advantageous to create a taxonomy or hierarchy of violence?

 

For your consideration, I’ve also brought together a few resources we’ve talked about at some point in the semester.

 

Interventions into the archive that we might discuss:

Ruddy Roye, Black Portraiture series http://ruddyroye.tumblr.com/

 

Companions to print/literary/paper interventions to the archive:

 

Zong! Digital companion: http://zong.site.wesleyan.edu/

As Flies to Whatless Boys Digital Companion: http://whatlessboys.com/

 

I think each of these projects uses, forges, and creates documents and documentation that asks us to interrogate the phrase “Which one is real” and why that matters (either in each particular case or in general).

 

Finally (and a bit disorganized): One of the things at issue here, at least to me, is the insistence on knowing and aggregating information (all of it!) with the attempt at mastery. It seems like if this is constantly the goal then we haven’t escaped the Enlightenment empiricism and rationality that is undergirded by racialized hierarchies of colonialism, mercantilism, and global capitalism. I know that that is a very popular critique to make from within my safe space within the academy, with all the privileges that come with it and my particular geo-political social position, but I think it touches on something that is of legitimate concern: there are still some things that defy or refuse (textual, linguistic, or imagistic, etc.) representation (not even all bad things like trauma). What do we do and how do we account for those? Affect, mood, expression, lines of type that you think of typing and then delete because you thought better of it, these are things that coexist and make up our embodied, phenomenological, and digital existence. They defy commensurability.

5 comments

  1. Profile photo of Maxine Anderson

    I think an Archive of Violence might best exist not as a new archive, but rather a organizing structure which laterally connects to other, existent (digital or “real”), archives and makes connections across borders of archives. In other words an attempt to reframe existent information in a new light by connecting this information with other information held elsewhere. For instance, such an archive arranger (for lack of better term) could laterally connect pictures of plantations with an archive of manual hand tools with an archive of letters, etc. and what sorts of understanding would arrive from such juxtapositions, constructing a model of interpretation which helps display the overlaps of violence within these structures. Something more than a search engine, but rather a rhizomatic arranging force. I could even imagine such an archive as being automated and expansive, proposing new juxtapositions based on key words and their relations(?). Perhaps in such a way the archive might escape narrow constrictions.

    Aaron, this is beautiful, if unnervingly Borgesian in its implications. And an interesting way to wrap up what seems to be the class’s final blog-post-comment-thread. All this discussion of archive makes me wonder to what extent we really answered any of the questions that we started with in this class: questions which keep coming up in this comment thread as well as others (and of course in class discussion).

    It’s kind of demoralizing to frame it this way, but aren’t we back at the beginning? A scholar (Deborah Thomas) has offered a technically and formally innovative solution to a perplexing issue of archive/distribution/academic production (the “Archive of Violence”), we debate whether or not it’s useful, raising some of the earlier issues of digital utopia/hopefulness and how it’s inherently problematic (see this comment thread), yet we can’t help but propose our own strange and beautiful solution?

    It almost seems as if the (self-)critical impulse of the academy and the eternal forward-looking hopefulness of the Enlightenment-empiricism technological-progress thing have us caught in an eternal feedback loop. Did we actually solve anything this semester? Can we logic our way out of the loop?

  2. Profile photo of Aaron Pinnix

    Chy, I think it might be an interesting pursuit to apply your productive investigations into performativity toward your questions concerning the archive.

    As you point out so much of history has been a performance, but a performance with an outcome. For instance, while certain events of the Civil Rights Movement were performances constructed with an intention towards visibility, these events simultaneously had real political effects.

    I wonder if we might get if we took this performative approach from your considerations of history, and moved it towards holders of history, the archives. In what ways do archives act and towards what way intents? This might at first glance seem difficult, in so far as archives seemingly have no operating intelligence, however, if we can consider history, with its plethora of voices, as performative, perhaps we could do the same with archives. Furthermore, we might consider the operating parameters of archives as a sort of organizing intelligence.

    Considering archives as performative would also provide them with a productive degree of agency, relevant in considering questions like “Is archival violence different from other violences?”.

  3. Profile photo of Chy Sprauve

    It was said in class that Ruddy Roye’s photographs were “obviously” staged–but while scrolling through his Instagram (the website was on the blink), some of the photos did not look “staged” at all. Even if the subjects were told to stand a certain way, or to squint their eyes, does that mean that the resulting image of the real bodies is somehow inauthentic? They are still moving their own bodies, they must still interpret the photographer’s command, right? Does that not mean anything? Also, someone in class mentioned that things in “official” archives represent some sort of authority, some sort of veracity. This made me think of iconic Civil Rights Movement images. I don’t know if those photos were “staged,” but 1) they had a persuasive end and 2) various actors in the movement staged many a thing, including the bus boycott. The legal maneuvers behind Brown v. Board–performance. All of the actions were performative. How can we make distinctions between “what happened” and “what really happened”? Isn’t “what happened” what “really” happened? Because. It. Really. Happened. Because someone did these things. No?

    I am reminded of Benitez-Rojo’s “certain kind of way.” The way he describes the gait of the two black women is supposed to be perceived as authentic–or at least it comes across that way. But walking in a “certain kind of way” is performative. How many historical happenings have we perceived as authentic but were actually performative in nature? All of them. So how can we gauge any happening by such a barometer (authenticity)? Perhaps we should just examine the effects of these performances. But can effects also be performative? Is this when “facts” and “statistics” help us to determine “what’s really happening”? The issue with this sort of questioning is that terrible things do happen to people. How would we address the various -isms in the world if we didn’t turn to the archive or to “statistics” and “facts”? Is there some sort of alternative? What might that alternative look like?

  4. Profile photo of Chy Sprauve

    Thoughts:

    – I think that archives bother me. Or they did bother me, until I realized I use archives all of the time. Perhaps not officially, but I’d say most of us (not just in the academy) use archival materials. I suppose what bothers me (and probably anyone who studies archives) is who gets to decide what is archivable.

    – Why should we officially archive anything at all? I’m thinking of combating various -isms at this moment: sexism, racism, etc–do archives help to address these things? I’m thinking that they can, which then, in my view, speak to their importance. I suppose many civil rights attorneys used archival materials to win cases and get laws passed.

    – Why are we (some of us) so consumed with collecting everything, recording everything, anyway? We know it’s impossible. Also, as was mentioned in class, what’s left out is sometimes intentionally left out. Some people perhaps do not want to relive experiences or surrender evidence to be put in an archive.

    – Why is our definition of “archive” so narrow? Dated family photographs and various personal records are archival.
    Perhaps even…a book?

    – Perhaps if the definition of archive was expanded, I wouldn’t be so uncomfortable with it (books, anyone?). Books don’t have to be “closed off” or seen as single-author. *We* put those limits on it because archive means something very specific (apparently.)

    – Is archival violence different from other violences? I mean, does it matter more? (I’d say no–I suppose, then, to answer your question, Gwen, that a taxonomy of violence is not helpful.) Why is this question important?

    – “By producing an archive of violence, a voluntary archive of information that would link seemingly unrelated acts to one another and larger (social scientific) patterns of oppression through and across time and space, refuting the trope that ‘black people have a culture of violence’” (35). The author did not sell me on this argument. How would such an archive look? How would it refute this trope?

    – How do we justify archival work if it is in fact violent? (If one were interested in minimizing / not consciously contributing to injustice, anyway.) Is it something we can “turn off,” though? Can we just let experiences go without recording them somehow? It seems very difficult, especially with digital technologies, where the impulse to record is so very strong.

  5. Profile photo of Aaron Pinnix

    Gwen, I have some similar questions in response to the article and Thomas’s desire to have an Archive of Violence. For instance in addition to the question of “what sort of violence would count and how?,” another interesting question might also be, “in what ways have understandings of violence changed?” If the proposed archive narrowly defines violence, then later generations might find the archive lacking. For instance, 100 years ago people may have defined violence as only physical violence. Now our definition extends to include verbal, but also structural, understandings of violence. For instance, would an archive of violence include documents relating to “West India royal commission’s claims that the West Indian Family structure was dysfunctional” (Thomas 33), documents which perhaps enables other kinds of violence?

    I think necessarily an Archive of Violence would require an archive of everything, an archive, which as the Archive.org article points out is not possible. Archives are inherently limited. What gets saved, what escapes, and in what ways do the materials within the archive degrade (or not).

    I think an Archive of Violence might best exist not as a new archive, but rather a organizing structure which laterally connects to other, existent (digital or “real”), archives and makes connections across borders of archives. In other words an attempt to reframe existent information in a new light by connecting this information with other information held elsewhere. For instance, such an archive arranger (for lack of better term) could laterally connect pictures of plantations with an archive of manual hand tools with an archive of letters, etc. and what sorts of understanding would arrive from such juxtapositions, constructing a model of interpretation which helps display the overlaps of violence within these structures. Something more than a search engine, but rather a rhizomatic arranging force. I could even imagine such an archive as being automated and expansive, proposing new juxtapositions based on key words and their relations(?). Perhaps in such a way the archive might escape a narrow constrictions.

    Of course on the other hand, such an archive (arranger) would inherently lack so much information about violence because violence often erases or occults. Those who suffer violence are often absent from the archive, and in this way perhaps an Archive of Violence would really mean an Archive of the Lacunas of Archives.

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